In the wake of Amazon’s choice of location for headquarters #2 (and the announcement that it was breaking the choice into two, one to be located in Queens and one in Crystal City–essentially, Washington, D.C.), Robert Reich wrote a provocative essay for Newsweek.
What does Amazon’s decision have to do with America’s political tumult? Turns out, quite a lot.
Amazon’s main headquarters is in Seattle, one of the bluest cities in the bluest of states. New York and metropolitan Washington are true-blue, too.
Amazon could have decided to locate its second headquarters in, say, Indianapolis, Indiana. Indianapolis vigorously courted the firm. It’s also a Republican city in a bright red state.
Actually, Indianapolis–like every other sizable city in the country–is unambiguously blue. But we are located in a very, very red state.
Reich’s main point was that technology is a process of “group learning,” and it advances best in geographical clusters. Those clusters are primarily found along the coasts, where the digital economy has been a real boon. But Reich says that economy has left behind much of the rest of the country, with the result that we are facing what he calls “the widening inequalities of place.”
As money pours into these hubs, so do service jobs that cater to the new wealth—pricey lawyers, wealth managers, and management consultants, as well as cooks, baristas, and pilates instructors.
Between 2010 and 2017, according to Brookings, nearly half of the America’s employment growth centered in just 20 large metro areas, now home to about a third of the U.S. population.
Relative to these booming hubs, America’s heartland is becoming older, less well-educated, and poorer.
I think the reality of “America’s heartland” is more complicated than Reich recognizes. And that takes me back to his mistaken assumption that Indianapolis is a Republican city.
Cities in even the brightest red states have been blue for some time. We form what has been dubbed an “urban archipelago.” Furthermore, the inhabitants of these cities are engaged in a multitude of creative place-making, job-creating and poverty-reducing efforts.
Here in Indianapolis, for example, Community Development Corporations partner with the City, the Chamber of Commerce and a variety of nonprofit organizations to improve transit, health, education and job training, and to remove barriers to self-sufficiency. People may disagree about the likely efficacy or unintended consequences of this or that initiative, but the range of activity–and the good will motivating it–is impressive.
Indianapolis’ problem (which is not shared by every blue island swimming in a rural sea of red) can be found in Reich’s second descriptor: our red state. It isn’t Republican control of Indiana that’s the problem; it’s the fact that we are a state in which there is no meaningful home rule. Public officials in Indiana cities must go hat-in-hand to the state legislature (currently governed by an unimaginative GOP super-majority) to pursue many of the policy initiatives that other cities have authority to pursue as a matter of course.
Want to charge extra for plastic bags? No can do, sayeth our legislative overlords. In just the last few years, the Indiana legislature has also prevented cities from setting local minimum wages, and from regulating housing, agricultural operations and worker schedules, among other things.
Perhaps the most egregious example of legislative arrogance involved Indianapolis’ proposal to tax ourselves to upgrade our inadequate transit system. It took three years just to get the legislature’s permission to hold a vote on the matter, and even then, the enabling legislation prohibited us from considering light rail. Why? Who knows?
A move to preempt local rules for services like Airbnb failed to get out of the Indiana House, but it was a rare setback for the never-ending march to scale back home rule. This year legislators successfully banned local zoning rules for certain utility poles and undermined so-called “good neighbor ordinances.”
(“Good neighbor” ordinances hold tenants accountable when they repeatedly inflict crimes and nuisances on their neighbors.)
The attorney who authored the column shared a number of other examples, and made a compelling case for giving greater authority to the people elected to govern municipalities.
The lack of ability to make our own decisions, based on the needs of our own residents, isn’t just making us less competitive for Amazon-sized sweepstakes.It is preventing us from improving everything from education to infrastructure to the quality of life in our city. Legislators who mostly represent the Indiana hinterlands consistently prevent us from reaching our full potential as a thriving urban oasis in a rural state that isn’t doing so well.
Urban residents of Indianapolis suspect that’s intentional.